HBO rolled out its new limited series The Young Pope on Sunday night (January 15th). Written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino, the series opening episode is nothing if not shocking.
Sorrentino, as we saw in both The Great Beauty (2013) and Youth (2015), is a master of both the beautiful as well as the grotesque. His compositional skills have produced some of the most visually arresting and stunning scenes in both of the above named films. Be sure and confident that this will continue in this limited TV series.
To simplify the story we have Lenny Belardo (played by Jude Law) as the just elected new Pope, and the first ever American Pope and is about to be introduced to the world. Or as the Italian press and media must have gushed out again and again – Habemus Papam – which is Latin for We Have a Pope. This is usually uttered by the Cardinal Protodeacon, who is the most senior of the Cardinal Deacons. This is announced from the Central Balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, and what follows is the new Pope gives his Urbi et Orbi – To the City [of Rome] and to the World address.
While that may be how a new Pope is introduced to the world, along with the white smoke. it is not how the series begins. Rather we see Judy Law emerging from under a huge pile of sleeping babies. But it is only a dream.
Law, as Pius XIII, then proceeds to shower and dress (yes, there’s a back view quick shot of a nude Pope about to enter his shower). What follows is a long sequence of the Pope heading to the Central Balcony. Think of Scorsese’s classic Goodfellas scene when Henry Hill and his date make their way through the underbelly of New York’s Copacabana Club. Only this time it is not a continuous or single tracking take. We have a number of cuts to the reactions of the Cardinals, and Monsignors, and other Vatican staff, as well as the faces of many in the huge throng below in St. Peter’s Square who blissfully await their first view of the new Pope.
To be certain as well as specific, it was splendidly shot and edited.
Sorrentino still has more than a few cards left to play. The day of the new Pope’s introduction is in the midst of a rain shower. We see literally thousands of umbrellas in the huge crowd. Before saying even a single word, Lenny opens his arms wide and leans back gazing to the heavens – and, as if on cue, the rains stop.
He then launches his Urbi et Orbi speech, and for a while it sounds like the standard Pope speak (aside from the English). But then midway, Sorrentino turns the speech inside out, and instead of papal good wishes and niceties, we get the complete opposite.
This Pope is winging it, and making it up as he goes. He has no intention of following the rules or traditions. He’s like no other Pope of all that came before him.
He’s a conservative and he is going to bring the Church into line with what he wants rather than the way it has always been. He will later say, And this is only the beginning.
He has a one on one conference with Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando above) who is in charge of Finances, Politics, and almost everything that isn’t theological. When he tells the new Pope that he is basically going to run the business and political side of the Church, the new Pope demurs and announces that his Senior Advisor will be Sister Mary, who rescued the young Lenny from an orphanage in California when he was just a boy. Diane Keaton has the role.
Humbled and despondent, Cardinal Voiello has been placed in a position of having to slink away. Lenny has already pressed the secret and silent buzzer beneath the desk that will summon a nun who will spin a lie (example – your 2:30 appointment is waiting in the anteroom). How obliterating for this Cardinal to be dismissed so easily, and this is only their first meeting.
This new Pope is going shake things up, change the rules as he sees fit, and he could not care less about traditions of being nice to the staff. There was a terrific scene when Cardinal Voiello attempts to challenge the new Pope.
Voiello: Pardon me Holy Father, but you may not smoke in this room.
Belardo: Who made that rule?
Voielle: Your predecessor…
Belardo: Well, there’s a new Pope in town.
That’s our boy Lenny Belardo. He’s not concerned about being nice to anyone for any reason. He doesn’t tweet – he says it right to someone’s face. He doesn’t say it, but you can see the similarities between this Pope and the new President Elect.
So this is going to be a ‘draining of the swamp’ in the Vatican. There’s no other way to state it. After all, The College of Cardinals is nothing if not a collection of back-stabbers, manipulators, and ego driven men. Just because they wear the clothing of the Cardinals, doesn’t mean that there can’t be ‘ecclesiastic hacks’ in their midst.
By the way, there’s a joke mentioned – The City of Rome is merely a suburb of the Vatican. But to be fair, this is a local joke rather than an international joke.
I think it is hard to determine if Sorrentino is pulling our collective legs, or if he’s dead serious in holding the Vatican up for ridicule.
To me the best way to view this series is to take in the splendid visuals, and to not take the show all that seriously. Do not let yourself feel offended. It is a beautiful production and I for one can’t wait for the second episode which airs on HBO on Monday night, January 16th. Sister Mary’s arrival via helicopter was worth the price of admission itself.
And I will close with a recommendation that this could very well be the Vatican House of Cards, or said another way, if all the previous Popes were normal, then HBO’s fictional American Pope, Lenny Belardo or Pope Pius XIII, is the Pope on drugs (not actually but as Lenny himself would say, and did say – I’m joking).